Sarah Polley has a secret. It’s a secret that, remarkably, she kept under wraps to all but friends and family until the film screened at the Venice Film Festival this morning. It’s a secret that’s seemingly informed her two directorial efforts to date, “Away From Her” and “Take This Waltz,” and is the subject matter of her third film, and first documentary, “Stories We Tell.” And it’s a secret that’s led to her finest work as a director so far.
It’s also a secret that is so important to the film that it would be virtually impossible to discuss it without giving it away. So, while Polley has written about it online today, knowing it going in might theoretically hamper your enjoyment of the film, the spoiler-phobic should be warned that from here on out, we will be giving certain things away. Be assured that fans of Polley’s work to date will be delighted by a documentary that serves simultaneously as a gripping mystery, a moving record of a family and a fascinating investigation into the nature of truth, memory, and the documentary form itself.
Made up of interviews and what initially appears to be archive home movie footage (in the manner of Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation”), the film begins as a portrait of the director’s actress mother Diana Polley, and of her marriage to Polley’s father Michael, which ended when Diana passed away from cancer when Sarah was eleven. To build up this picture, Polley has interviewed her father (who was also an actor for a time), her siblings, and her parents’ friends, who paint a picture of a vibrant, complicated woman in a relationship that was loving, but not entirely happy.
And then comes the secret. Her brothers and sisters had long joked that Sarah didn’t look much like her father, and when she turned 18, began to make enquiries, discovering that her mother may have had an affair with a co-star when she was in a play in Montreal around the time that Sarah was conceived. Polley is eventually intrigued enough to seek out Canadian producer Harry Gulkin (the Oscar-nominated “Lies My Father Told Me”), an old friend of her mother’s, to ask. In fact, Harry reveals that he was the one who had an affair with Diana, and suspects that he’s her father. In fact, having now met her, he’s sure of it.
On one hand, Polley tells this story as truthfully as is possible – through the words of those who it involves, or who were there for the aftermath, like her four siblings. Indeed, the bulk of the film’s narration comes from a lengthy essay her father wrote after the fact, read in his own dulcet tones (Polley shoots within the recording studio as he does so, charmingly showing her directing her father, and her own nervous energy, in the process). At the same time, by the very nature of the film, she’s editorializing, manipulating the narrative for maximum shock value, and shooting reconstructions of what initially looked like archive Super 8 footage, with actors playing her parents in their younger days, and the real-life participants playing themselves in more recent times.
But to her credit, Polley doesn’t just acknowledge these liberties, she makes them an intrinsic part of the film, to the extent that she openly questions her own motivations for making the documentary. She’s essentially encouraging the audience to ask questions about how possible it is to closely recreate and document the past, and whether a documentary can achieve those goals.
It’s fascinating stuff, doubly so because of the clear parallels with her previous directorial efforts. Her real story is reflected both in the late-in-life adultery in “Away From Her,” and the fallibility of monogamy, and the risks of not making the leap into the unknown of “Take This Waltz.” (Interestingly, her sister comments at one point that after discovering Sarah’s news, all three Polley daughters were soon divorced). She keeps herself mostly off screen, and yet the director is exposing just as much of herself as anyone.
Which makes it all sound quite high-minded, but the film’s plot, if you can call it that, grips like a thriller, and Polley takes care to introduce the participants as characters rather than as her relatives. And all of her “characters,” from wisecracking older brother Mark to the Albert Einstein-ish Harry to the quiet, repressed, impossibly generous Michael (the source of much of the film’s emotion) are hugely entertaining, and are simply a pleasure to spend time with.
There are some issues. Shying away from introducing her interviewees clearly at the beginning means that even by the end, you’re sometimes struggling to work out how they relate to one another. And the film drags in its conclusion, stacking multiple endings on top of one another. They all contain good material, but one does start to shift a little in the seat. But for the most part, it’s a film that tickles both the brain and the heart, and by some distance Polley’s most consistent, and best, work as a director to date. [A-]